Success in San Francisco: No-kill animal control

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, March 1995:

SAN FRANCISCO––If San Francisco SPCA ethical stud-
ies coordinator Pam Rockwell hadn’t supported her January 5 report
to president Richard Avanzino with three pages of graphs and statis-
tics, it might have been mistaken by outside readers for a work of
utopian fiction.
“Every adoptable dog and cat in San Francisco’s shelters
found a loving new home in 1994,” Rockwell stated. “Older cats
and dogs, blind animals, deaf animals, animals missing limbs or
otherwise disfigured––as long as they were healthy and of reasonably
good temperament, these dogs and cats were all adoptable. Each
was and is guaranteed a new home under the Adoption Pact,” which
the SFSPCA negotiated with the San Francisco Animal Care and
Control department just a year ago. “Since this group of animals
would be considered unadoptable and be euthanized in most shelters,
the fact that in San Francisco all these animals were saved would
appear to be an unprecedented achievement.”

Not even Star Trek, which contended with a tribble surplus
in 1966, envisioned such an early end to pet overpopulation.
“It is fitting that we should achieve this in the City of St.
Francis, the patron saint of the animals,” Avanzino said. But
Avanzino waste time taking bows. Animals are still euthanized for
cause in San Francisco––4,589 in 1994. That was 18.5% fewer ani-
mals than were euthanized in 1993, when San Francisco had by far
the lowest euthanasia rate of any major American city. Yet
Avanzino thinks the city can do even better. As a notorious perfec-
tionist and over-achiever, who reports for work at five a.m., rarely
goes home before dusk, and often works weekends, he didn’t even
wait for Rockwell’s report before committing the SFSPCA to a still
more mind-boggling goal: the city-wide abolition of euthanasia of
shelter animals in any but the most necessary cases.
“The number of treatable dogs and cats killed city-
wide dropped 49%, from 2,606 in 1993 to 1,320 in 1994,”
Rockwell explained. Of these, 43 were injured, 596 were
sick, and 681 were unweaned infants,” down from 123,
1,501, and 982, respectively, a year earlier. “As of January
1, 1995, we have been taking all of Animal Care and
Control’s treatable dogs and cats, so we can expect to see
further dramatic declines in the number of treatables killed in
the coming year––perhaps even to the point of eliminating
euthanasias in the treatable category.”
Already the San Francisco euthanasia rate stands at
“just 37% of all dogs and cats impounded,” Rockwill contin-
ued. The national average is 68%, while big cities often
euthanize 80% of the animals they receive; some exceed
90%. Avanzino believes the euthanasia rate can be cut down
to 25%. The math works, since of the animals killed, 29%
(12% of total intake) could have been saved just by treating
all of the treatables.
“By far the largest category of dogs and cats killed
in San Francisco shelters in 1994 were non-rehabilitatable,”
Rockwell finished. “This category includes animals for
whom euthanasia is the only option, because of a painful,
incurable illness or a serious aggression problem. Of the
4,589 dogs and cats euthanized at the city animal care and
control shelter in 1994, 3,269 or 71% were non-rehabilitat-
able, or were non-adoptable animals euthanized at the
owner’s request.”
All 66 animals euthanized by the SFSPCA itself in
1994 were considered non-rehabilitatable.
The SFSPCA and SFACC use the same categoriza-
tion criteria and record-keeping system, devised by
Avanzino and incorporated into the Adoption Pact implemen-
tation plan. It provides the animal care and control communi-
ty with the first reliable hard numbers on the potential for
reducing euthanasias. The best available estimate of shelter
euthanasias, nationwide, is ANIMAL PEOPLE’s current
projection of 5.4 million, based on recent shelter-by-shelter
tallies of euthanasias covering virtually every known shelter
in the states of California, Colorado, Florida, Iowa,
Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Oregon,
Texas, Vermont, and Washington. Together these 12 states
comprise 43% of the U.S. human population. San Francisco
statistics suggest that more than four million euthanasias
could be prevented, nationwide, if agreements parallel to the
Adoption Pact were in effect.
Achieved through planning
But the Adoption Pact was not achieved overnight.
In fact, while Avanzino had it in the back of his mind as a
goal from his first day on the job 18 years ago, he didn’t
even start talking about it until the past few years, after mov-
ing the SFSPCA into position to pursue it as patiently and
persistently as a cat trying to grab a morsel. Only the fourth
president the SFSPCA has had in 126 years, Avanzino
brought to the organization a background as a pharmacist,
attorney, lobbyist, and public health administrator––and a
lifelong conviction that killing animals “for their own good”
just because they happen to be homeless is not only wrong
but destructive to the humane ethic.
“Ironically,” Avanzino laughs, “I wanted to do
something involving animals all along, but I didn’t want to
become a veterinarian because in those days there was no
avoiding having to kill animals in a veterinary course of
study. I finally got here, but I took rather an indirect route.”
Elsewhere around the country, Adoption Pact critics
often suggest Avanzino could implement it only because of
his extraordinarily privileged situation: money in the SFSP-
CA bank account, a strong donor base, a cooperative board
of directors, and long tenure of leadership, enabling him to
follow through on long-range plans. “What they don’t real-
ize,” Avanzino explains, “is that it wasn’t always this way.”
Founded in 1868 with Gold Rush money, maintaining a shel-
ter since 1875, and providing municipal animal control ser-
vice beginning in 1888, the SFSPCA used up its initial
endowment dealing with the aftermath of the 1906 fire and
earthquake, building the present headquarters in 1932, and
most of all in subsidizing animal control from 1905, when it
assumed the job for keeps after 17 years of litigation and con-
troversy involving other claimants, until 1989. Hired in
1976, Avanzino inherited debts, a staff demoralized by
increasing amounts of animal control killing, and a donor
base of just 1,700 people.
And his predecessor remained on the board, in the
most prominent office, muddling staff loyalties. Avanzino
arrived to find no parking space available for him, no desk,
and staffers betting that because of his lack of previous animal
care and control experience, he wouldn’t last ten days.
“If I had only 10 days,” Avanzino grins, “I decided
to make the most of them.” On his second day, he abolished
use of the decompression chamber for euthanasia. The board
backed him up. He instituted other reforms, reporting to the
board president about every action. After a couple of months
the board president told Avanzino to quit bugging him and go
on about his work, a unique vote of confidence in a field
notorious for board meddling in administrative affairs.
Eventually Avanzino inherited the big office, shared now
with two huge orange tomcats. The donor list grew to 64,000,
including 80 annual donors of $10,000 or more.
Public responds
The secret of successful fundraising, Avanzino says,
is similar to the formula for running a successful for-profit
business: the customer is always right. “We do what the pub-
lic expects us to do, and they respond,” Avanzino explains.
“The public wants an SPCA to be taking care of animals and
adopting out animals. The public does not want an SPCA to
be killing animals. The humane community correctly recog-
nized when many major organizations including the SFSPCA
took a stand against turning shelter animals over to laborato-
ries that surrendering animals to be used in potentially painful
experiments would erode the public trust in their institutions,
and would result in people abandoning animals instead of
bringing them in. But for some reason they never applied that
same understanding to the matter of taking over animal con-
trol contracts and euthanizing animals en mass because of
overpopulation. And the same thing happened. Perhaps the
biggest reason why animals are abandoned today is that peo-
ple don’t want them to be killed. They’d rather turn them
loose on the street to fend for themselves, and pretend that
they’re giving the animals a chance, than be certain that
they’re going to be euthanized. In 1989, after 101 years, the
SFSPCA returned the animal control contract to the city.
We’ve worked very hard since then to regain the trust of the
community that we are not going to kill animals. We’re get-
ting the people to bring those animals in so that we can neuter
them, put them up for adoption, and end this cycle of aban-
donment, uncontrolled breeding, and killing.”
While the SFSPCA got out of the animal control
business, it kept much responsibility anti-cruelty enforce-
ment. Recalls Avanzino, “A verbal understanding was made
with the new department of Animal Care and Control that the
SFSPCA would handle cruelty investigations involving insti-
tutions such as the zoo, the University of California and Army
research facilities, and the carriage horse trade. The city offi-
cers would investigate the individual care-and-keep cases.”
The SFSPCA and the SFACC maintain a close rela-
tionship, by design. The SFACC shelter is kitty-corner from
the SFSPCA on the same side street. The SFSPCA is current-
ly expanding from the 1932-vintage headquarters to take over
the rest of its side of the block. Already a former parking
garage has been attractively renovated into classrooms, an
auditorium, and a “doggie daycare” center. Next a ware-
house as big as the headquarters will be transformed into addi-
tional space for a variety of new programs, about which
Avanzino enjoys being mysterious.
“Maybe we haven’t figured them all out yet,” he
grins. But he allows that the physical proximity to the animal
control shelter has never been just coincidence, that the plan
all along has been for the animal control unit and the SFSPCA
to work in tandem. Under former SFACC director Ken
White, now companion animals program director for the
Humane Society of the U.S., that sometimes didn’t happen.
Criticall of Avanzino’s popularity, White refers to no-kill
shelters, including the SFSPCA, as “turnaways,” contending
that they take in only the most adoptable animals and leave
the dirty work of killing to others. Avanzino doesn’t return
fire, but he doesn’t have to. Rockwell’s statistical analysis of
what’s happened since White departed and the Adoption Pact
took effect tells what’s really happened.
Adoption record
“Adoptions at SFAC declined slightly,” she admits.
“We expected their adoptions to rise or at least remain even,
since SFACC is free to keep the cute-and-cuddlies, and to
manage their adoption population in any way they see fit to
maximize adoptions. They can and do give us the old-and-
uglies, and keep the more appealing animals, like small dogs,
who are in high demand. Nevertheless they adopted out 75
fewer animals in 1994 than in 1993. While this may be too
small a decline on which to base any firm conclusions, it is
interesting that much of it took place in the last quarter of the
year, when their adoptions fell by 157 animals compared to
the same time period in 1993.
“Given that the majority of animals our shelter took
in under the Pact had serious impediments to adoption, we
might have expected our adoptions to decline. Surprisingly,
the opposite occurred and adoptions actually increased. Five
of the nine months during which the Adoption Pact was in
effect posted all-time highs when compared to the same
months in previous years. October, with 534 adoptions, was
the best month we’ve ever had as a private adoption agency,
and it was followed closely by August and July, which came
in second and third, respectively. These gains seem to fly in
the face of conventional wisdom, which holds that animals of
advanced age or with serious impediments to adoption can’t
be readily placed and will only tie up existing adoption space,
resulting in fewer lives saved.”
In other words, as Lena Horne used to sing, “It
ain’t the meat; it’s the motion.” The SFSPCA is moving in
the direction the public wants: away from slaughter and ani-
mal-as-commodity. The public is responding. The SFACC is
perhaps adopting out fewer animals––but those it can’t place,
the SFSPCA is placing.
“We don’t have to show people barrels of dead ani-
mals because we don’t have barrels of dead animals,”
Avanzino says. “We show people animals who are going to
be going home. People aren’t afraid to come in here; they’re
not going to be made sad.”
To avoid making people sad, and to show animals
off to their best advantage, Avanzino has replaced conven-
tional cat cages with “kitty condominiums” the size of shower
stalls––80 of them, each carpeted, with a climbing structure
and a toy. One of the main jobs for the SFSPCA’s small
army of 2,100 volunteers is just playing with the cats.
Another is walking and running with the dogs, whose facili-
ties are more conventional. Avanzino apologizes for an auxil-
iary holding area that isn’t quite as spacious and soundproof
as the main kennels. Freshly painted and spotless, most shel-
ters would be showing it off. But fresh paint is nothing spe-
cial at the SFSPCA: Avanzino has a fulltime maintenance
crew continuously repainting every section of the building.
“The public doesn’t want to come into a rundown
building,” he explains. “To attract the public, you have to
keep your plant attractive.”
Likewise, Avanzino believes that maintaining staff
morale requires keeping all the equipment in good repair.
The SFSPCA has an in-house machine shop and fulltime car-
penter––maintenace supervisor George Hooper, who started
at the SFSPCA as a janitor/watchman in 1965. He met and
married his wife Sandra there; Sandra, now director of the
shelter division, has worked at the SFSPCA since 1961.
People programs
People programs get a high priority too at the SFSP-
CA, which accomodates half a dozen homeless people under
the outdoor eaves at night. “They’re well behaved,”
Avanzino says. They know we look after homeless animals
here and they seem to respect that..”
Other aspects of “people orientation” include a
multi-ethnic staff capable of conversing with clients in 12 dif-
ferent languages; Rockwell’s unique “ethical studies” depart-
ment, which is a negotiation-based preventive approach to
anti-cruelty enforcement; behavioral counseling to help keep
pets in homes; humane education; a summer program for
disadvantaged children; off-site adoption boutiques staffed
by volunteers at more than 20 locations around the city; an
animal assisted therapy program that serves more than 25,000
patients a year at 100 institutions; a pet grooming college rec-
ognized by the California Superintendent
of Public
Instruction, Veteran’s Administration, and Department of
Rehabilitation, which both keeps the SFSPCA animals look-
ing good and teaches job skills; and a hearing dog program
acknowledged as a world leader in the field since 1978.
The 1993 children’s book A Place For Grace, by
Jean Davies Okimoto, illustrated by Doug Keith, recently
made the SFSPCA hearing dog program famous, but it was
already well-known among the deaf. It occupies the entire
fourth floor of the SFSPCA headquarters. Qualified dogs are
selected from shelters all over northern California. Medium-
sized mixed-breed dogs of high intelligence are preferred;
many shelters would not otherwise consider some of them
good adoption candidates. The dogs are taught to identify the
source of unusual sounds and run back and forth between
their owner and the sound, making body contact to get atten-
tion, until the owner responds. They also learn to awaken a
sleeping owner, should a smoke alarm or alarm clock go off.
They receive obedience training using both verbal commands
and hand signals. Nearly 500 SFSPCA hearing dogs have
now been placed with deaf people, who each spend two
weeks training with their dog at the SFSPCA before the dog
goes home with them. If a hearing dog owner dies or for any
other reason gives up the dog, the dog returns to the program
to either be trained with a different owner or retired into a fos-
ter home. The original SFSPCA hearing dog, Penny, now
long retired, is resident overseer of the program.
Another of the SFSPCA’s unique services is the
Sido Service. Explains a brochure, “Some years ago a San
Francisco woman feared no one would be able to properly
care for her dog after she passed away. As a result she stipu-
lated in her will that upon her death the dog be humanely put
to sleep. That dog’s name was Sido. The woman died in
1979 and the friendly 11-year-old sheltie mix was put in the
temporary care of the SFSPCA. But the SFSPCA refused to
release Sido to those who wanted to carry out the terms of the
will, and instead fought for Sido’s life. The public rallied to
Sido’s cause, and the crusade spilled over to the courts and
the state legislature. After six tense months, a new law was
passed. The little dog’s life was spared. Sido spent another
five glorious years with a loving family.”
Remembers Avanzino, “The legislation saved only
Sido, but the court case set a legal precedent on disposition of
animals in wills, and has been relied on in many similar cases
n several states since then.”
The Sido case inspired Avanzino to begin offering
placement service for pets of deceased members. “The SFSP-
CA will work to find the best possible home for an animal,”
the brochure pledges. “The SFSPCA also provides free life-
time medical services for the pet through the SFSPCA hospi-
tal, and periodically checks in with the pet’s new owners to
ensure the animal is well cared for and happy.”
Many of the animals are placed through a parallel
Senior Partnership Program. Persons of age 65 or older who
adopt an adult animal from the SFSPCA––for which they are
not charged––receive free neutering, initial vaccinations, ID
tags, basic veterinary care for one year at the SFSPCA clinic,
and a starter kit of pet supplies, equipment, and food.
Roland Eastwood, president of the Fort Myers
SPCA in Fort Myers, Florida, has for some years told every-
one who would listen that providing for the pets of the
deceased is the biggest growth opportunity in humane
work––not only a much needed service, appreciated by the
public, but also an avenue to bequests. Simultaneously,
organizations including Sangre Cristo Animal Protection of
New Mexico, the North Shore Animal League of Port
Washington, New York, and the Ralston Purina company
have promoted the idea of adopting out older dogs and cats to
senior citizens, who typically need a pretrained animal with
relatively low exercise requirements. Each organization like-
wise provides support services to seniors who adopt. But thus
far the SFSPCA seems to be unique in providing both a
seniors program and lifetime care for pets of the deceased,
whether or not the pets came from the seniors program.
State-of-the-art clinic
Free neutering and free basic veterinary service are
provided by one of the largest nonprofit veterinary hospitals in
the world, occupying most of the second floor of the head-
quarters. Avanzino averted friction with the veterinary com-
munity by stocking it with high-tech equipment most veteri-
nary clinics can’t afford––and then making it available to any
veterinarian in the city.
“The animals get the advanced treatment they need,
and the private practice veterinarians get credit for the recov-
ery,” he explains. “We help them, so they help us.”
Over the years, the SFSPCA has contributed to
many advances in veterinary technique. In 1989 it became
one of the first clinics to routinely neuter animals at four
months of age.
Open seven days a week, the SFSPCA clinic cur-
rently neuters about 6,000 animals per year, charging $20 for
male cats, $25 for female cats and male dogs, and $35 for
female dogs. Neutering is free for any animal adopted from
the SFSPCA. Any animal old enough to be neutered is
neutered before leaving the building. Neutering is also free
for feral cats in approved neuter/release programs––a major
source of friction between the SFSPCA and the National
Audubon Society, which blames cats for a purported decline
of songbirds in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park.
In addition, striving to cut off the source of home-
less cats, the SFSPCA offers free neutering throughout the
three-month spring kitten season each year to any cats owned
or found by anyone in San Francisco. “It’s more cost-effec-
tive for us to neuter their animals for free,” Avanzino
explains, “that it is to deal with the offspring.” Noting that
homeless cats seem to be the last reservoir of uncontrolled
feline breeding, Avanzino is currently planning to pay a
bounty for the delivery of sexually intact feral toms from the
streets to the operating room.
“It’s going to be controversial,” he admits. But
controversy has never daunted him.
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